CINCINNATI -- Whether FC Cincinnati gets millions in public aid to build a new soccer stadium could boil down to politics and pride.
For weeks, FC Cincinnati President Jeff Berding has been quietly meeting with city and Hamilton County leaders, feeling out what kind of public help could be available to build a new stadium for a soccer club that has excited the city and broken attendance records.
Berding ramped up his pitch at a media event last week, asking for “a little help” in creating a public-private partnership and saying that his club can’t win a Major League Soccer franchise without its own soccer stadium.
“We think the stadium would be a beacon for young professionals” and elevate the city’s reputation around the globe, Berding said at a lunch event later that week.
But politics could complicate what happens next, and some opposition has emerged.
Past stadium deals remain so unpopular that they prompted national media attention and imploded at least one political career. The memory of those deals could stand out for politicians. There are City Council and mayoral races in November and a county commissioner election in 2018.
“Most people are upset about the Bengals lease. I think it goes hand-in-hand with the sales tax,” said Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel, a Republican who faces re-election in 2018. “People still have that bitter taste in their mouth – once bitten, twice shy.”
FC Cincinnati leaders are trying to distance themselves from past stadium deals while simultaneously courting their most die-hard fans.
Last week, the normally media-shy Carl Lindner III, CEO of FC Cincinnati, wrote an editorial trying to set the record straight.
“We are NOT asking the voters to build FC Cincinnati its stadium,” Lindner wrote. “So claims that we want a riverfront-sized deal, or want a nearly 100 percent, publicly-financed stadium, are simply incorrect.”
FC Cincinnati brought in record-breaking crowds in its first season at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium. But to move up from the second-tier United Soccer League and win one of the four MLS expansion franchises up for grabs, it needs its own soccer-specific stadium.
A new stadium will cost “in the ballpark of $170 to $200 million,” Berding said. If FC Cincinnati owners commit $100 million, a sizeable hole of $70 to $100 million in funding remains.
Meanwhile Lindner and Berding will unveil a rendering of the proposed new stadium to FC Cincinnati season ticket holders on Monday. The town hall meeting is at the Woodward Theater, less than a mile from a proposed site for the stadium in the West End. Sites in Oakley and Newport are also being considered.
“We’re looking to build our stadium right in the urban core, right in a neighborhood,” Berding said at a private lunch event on June 2. “It’s a $250 million investment into one of our neighborhoods that could probably use a lot of investment.”
At that meeting, Berding showed slides of sleek soccer stadiums around the world, from England to Qatar. The stadium here would not be built from bricks or pre-cast concrete, but it does have an innovative design, Berding said.
While the design might be ready to go, Berding still doesn’t have a complete answer as to how it will be paid for.
“We don’t know how we’re going to pay for it yet because we’re still working on it," Berding said. "We have to figure it out by the end of the year.”
But opposition is mounting. Tim Mara, a local tax watchdog and lawyer who successfully led a campaign to kill the city parks levy in 2015, has taken aim at FC Cincinnati. His new group is simply named: No New Stadium Taxes.
“The last time we left it up to elected officials to defend our interest we saw what happened," Mara said. "The commissioners ended up signing a terrible deal. I don’t think we can sit back and assume someone is looking out for our interests.”
Mara spoke at a county commissioners meeting last month and said stadium tax opponents will attend debates and community forums ahead of the November election. He believes public officials are trying to avoid the topic and “doing their best not to take a stand on the issue.”
“We’re trying to focus the public’s attention on what’s occurring and clearly that effort has already resulted in Jeff Berding and his crew providing more information,” Mara said. “They see they have opposition and are trying their best to do a full court blitz.”
Stadium deal ghosts
County residents voted in 1996 to fund the construction of Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park after being promised that the stadiums would create an economic boost and ultimately provide a tax break.
Years later, a Wall Street Journalarticle called Cincinnati's stadium deal one of the worst in the history of professional sports.
A 2016 WCPO analysis found the county has poured more than $920 million since 2000 into the Bengals stadium. Great American Ball Park, the Cincinnati Reds' stadium, has cost the county $621 million to build and operate since it first opened.
“I think the appetite is not nearly as strong as decades ago before we went through the Bengals and Reds stadium deals. I think it’s definitely an uphill battle the owners will face,” said University of Cincinnati economics professor Michael Jones. “There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that stadiums do not pay for themselves.”
Those running for re-election or higher office also will consider the political carnage past stadium deals caused.
Bob Bedinghaus, a Republican county commissioner who favored the stadium deals, lost his 2000 re-election campaign to Democrat Todd Portune, who is now chairman of the commission.
“The county should not be in the business of owning sports stadiums. We already have two stadiums so we have enough on our plate,” Monzel, who is expected to run for re-election next year, said. “It’s not a core county function of government. Other things are higher priorities, like public safety.”
Monzel said he’s a “huge supporter” of FC Cincinnati, but he can’t endorse county ownership of a new stadium or a sales tax to support it.
He said he favors development tools that wouldn’t raise taxpayer costs -- such as creating a special improvement district for the stadium, or Tax Increment Financing. TIF is a public financing method that is used as a subsidy for development projects.
He also said he believes everyday citizens might want to invest in a new soccer stadium. He suggested a website, mystadiumfund.com, that allows people to invest as little as $500 into a fund for a new sports arena.
“I think we need to be open and think outside the box about it,” Monzel said.
With a tight mayor’s race looming, both candidates are keeping some distance from the new stadium financing issue.
Mayor John Cranley frequently praises FC Cincinnati for “taking the city by storm," and he was part of the pitch to MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s November visit here. But he won’t put city money into a new stadium.
“We don’t have the legal capacity or financial ability to put money into the stadium, but we would certainly provide the same type of abatements that we would provide any major new venture coming to the city,” Cranley said. He added that the city could also be helpful with zoning, permitting and other regulations.
The team’s interest in a Newport site, however, could put local leaders in a position where they need to offer up more incentives or watch the club build its new stadium across the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky.
“I’m trying to keep it in the city,” Cranley said.
While Berding acknowledged last week that a lot of the team’s fans come from the Hamilton County core, the team sees traffic from the city’s surrounding areas, too.
“We do OK in terms of people coming in from the neighboring counties, including Northern Kentucky,” Berding said.
Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, who is running against Cranley for mayor, is more tepid in her support for a soccer stadium here.
“I’m still very concerned, and I shared this with Jeff (Berding), about public support for the project," Simpson said. "Meaning taking a tax and putting it toward the project. There are still some real concerns around the first time we did this. From my perspective, that’s not my decision to make, that’s in the hands of the (county) commissioners.”
If county leaders agree to help build a stadium with public money, then Simpson said she would consider giving the stadium tax abatements or TIF money from the city.
But even that would come with a condition. She doesn’t want the stadium built within the core of a neighborhood where homes would be torn down. And she would demand jobs at the new stadium would pay at least a $15 living wage.
“The city has taken a pretty big stand that minimum wage is $15 an hour," Simpson said. "My expectation is that (FC Cincinnati) would understand that, and any incentive that we would provide would follow that line."
For his part, Mara, who is a Democrat but a tax foe, is interested to see how the new stadium falls along party lines in elections this year and in 2018.
He’s willing to support some modest streetscaping improvements around a new stadium, but that’s about it.
“If what they’re looking for is $100 million dollars worth of assistance that’s way out of line,” Mara said.
The county and city already have a long list of compelling needs -- outdated bridges, inadequate bus service, paying for a $3 billion sewer system overhaul and the need for more police protection, he said.
It left Mara with one question.
“Why all of the sudden would this project be first in line?”